Israeli air, ground forces bombard northern Gaza in heaviest strike yet

For 4th night, Hamas fires rockets at central, southern Israel; 87-year-old woman dies after hitting her head while running to bomb shelter; PM vows to exact heavy price from Hamas

An explosion lights the sky following an Israeli air strike on Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip early on May 14, 2021. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

An explosion lights the sky following an Israeli air strike on Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip early on May 14, 2021. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces launched a massive bombardment on a large number of targets in the northern Gaza Strip shortly around midnight on Thursday, using both ground and air forces, the military said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to exact a “very heavy price” from Hamas, the Gaza-ruling terror group which has fired some 1,750 projectiles at Israel since Monday afternoon.

After initial confusion on the matter, the IDF clarified that it had not launched a ground invasion into the Gaza Strip during the attack, which reportedly lasted over an hour.

The IDF did not immediately identify its targets in the strike, saying it would do so shortly.

Following the Israeli assault, the Hamas terror group launched multiple waves of rocket attacks on southern and central Israel, firing rockets toward the cities of Ashkelon, Ashdod, Beersheba, Yavne and many surrounding communities.

At least one rocket directly struck a building in the city of Ashkelon, seriously injuring a 60-year-old man, Israeli authorities said. Another landed next to a car, damaging it.

Some of the incoming projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system and several landed in open areas, where they caused no damage or injuries.

“I said that we would exact a very heavy price from Hamas and the other terrorist organizations. We are doing so and we will continue to do so with great force,” he said. “The last word has not been said and this operation will continue as long as necessary in order to restore the quiet and security to the State of Israel.

According to the IDF, some 1,750 rockets and mortar shells have been fired toward Israel by terror groups in Gaza since fighting broke out on Monday evening, including 190 projectiles launched between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. on Thursday. Around 300 of the total projectiles launched landed inside the Palestinian enclave, and in at least one case killed a number of children when the rocket hit a school.

The IDF on Thursday said it had so far bombed upwards of 600 targets in the Strip, over 100 of them in the previous 24 hours.

Earlier in the evening, terrorists in the Strip also launched multiple barrages of rockets toward southern and central Israel, at Ben Gurion Airport and the Shfela region, as well as Tel Aviv. Another barrage targeted Ashdod and Ashkelon, with one rocket landing in the latter city.

A firefighter stands over the impact site of a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip that hit a building in the city of Ashkelon, injuring a man, on May 14, 2021. (Fire and Rescue Services)

Another round of rockets aimed at the southern city of Beersheva, with at least three projectiles hitting buildings.

The majority of the rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome air-defense system.

During one of the rocket barrages, an 87-year-old woman died after falling and hitting her head while running to a shelter in Shtulim, near Ashdod, Magen David Adom paramedics reported.

The increased death toll came after a number of reports in local Palestinian media of Israeli airstrikes targeting residential areas. Some of those reports claimed entire families were killed in some cases.

Israel maintains that most of those killed in Gaza were terror group members or, in a few cases, died from errant Palestinian rockets.

Earlier Thursday, Hamas operatives fired rockets at the Tel Aviv area and Beersheba and toward Eilat’s airport, in what the terror group said was an act of revenge for its commanders who were killed in Israeli strikes this week.

A few dozen rockets were fired in the attacks, which triggered sirens throughout central Israel and the northern Negev desert.

Earlier in the day, Israel closed Ben Gurion International Airport to incoming passenger flights, diverting them to Eilat’s Ramon Airport. Hamas said it subsequently targeted that airfield as well.

No sirens were heard in the rocket fire toward Eilat, as the projectile landed in an open area far outside the city, where it caused neither injury nor damage.

The military denied Hamas’s claims — widely echoed by Israeli media — that it fired some 100 rockets at central and southern Israel in the afternoon barrage. Rather, the Israel Defense Forces said, the terror group in fact launched 25 to 30 rockets in the attack.

Hamas also said it had launched a number of “suicide drones,” unmanned aerial vehicles carrying explosive payloads, into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. The military confirmed downing at least two such drones. Channel 12 news reported that the drones appeared to have primitive capabilities and did not seem to represent a serious danger.

On Wednesday morning, the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service conducted a large-scale operation targeting a number of top commanders in Hamas, including the head of its Gaza City battalion and several people involved in its weapons production operations in the Strip, the military said.

Following the Thursday afternoon rocket fire, the IDF hit a number of sites in Gaza, including one the military said served as the main command center for Hamas’s surveillance network.

It was not immediately clear how many Hamas members were killed in the strike, which the IDF said occurred as dozens of people were in the building.

The IDF said it also launched strikes on four “operations apartments” of senior Hamas commanders in Gaza: the deputy commander of Hamas’s Jabalia regiment in the northern Strip, as well as three company commanders in northern and central Gaza.

Smoke and flames rise after an Israeli airstrike in the southern Gaza Strip, May 12, 2021. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

All the apartments were allegedly used to direct recent rocket attacks at Israeli cities.

The military also said it bombed the “operational apartment” of Samer Abu Daka, the head of Hamas’s drone operations, after the drone launches.

The military said the apartment was used for military purposes. It also said the same apartment was targeted in the 2014 war.

The IDF also said it struck a main Hamas rocket production site and a military post of the Hamas naval force in the central Gaza Strip. In addition, a number of other weapons production sites were struck throughout the day, according to the military.

Also Thursday the IDF said it bombed four Hamas cells preparing to launch anti-tank guided missiles at targets in southern Israel over the course of two hours, striking the teams before they could carry out their attacks. The military said it bombed an anti-tank guided missile launcher that had been positioned on an apartment building in the southern Gaza Strip, accusing Hamas of using the occupants as human shields.

Hundreds of the projectiles fired from Gaza have been intercepted by Iron Dome missile defense batteries, according to the military, which refuses to give precise statistics on the matter as they could be used by terror groups to find ways to outmaneuver the system.

The IDF on Thursday said the air defense system had a roughly 90 percent interception rate of projectiles heading toward populated areas. Terror groups have been launching rockets in massive barrages to try and overwhelm the system.

In the most serious rocket attack overnight Wednesday-Thursday, two people were moderately injured by shrapnel and six others were treated for smoke inhalation after a Hamas rocket from Gaza struck in between homes in Petah Tikva shortly after midnight, sparking a fire. The buildings near the fire sustained moderate damage.

On Wednesday night and Thursday morning, the Israeli military expanded its targets in the Gaza Strip to include institutions that Hamas uses to rule the Palestinian enclave, notably its treasury and banks, IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman said.

In addition, the Israeli Air Force bombed Hamas’s internal security headquarters used in counterintelligence operations, destroyed the home of Iyad Tayeb, a battalion commander in Hamas’s military wing, and killed a squad of Hamas’s naval forces, Zilberman said.

Palestinians assess the damage caused by an Israeli airstrike at the Islamic National Bank of the Hamas terror group in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 13, 2021 (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The IDF’s campaign in Gaza, officially dubbed Operation Guardian of the Walls, has so far been conducted primarily by airstrikes, as well as artillery shellings from the ground and the sea, but the military said it was preparing for the possibility of a ground incursion.

Zilberman said plans for a ground invasion would be presented for approval by the IDF General Staff on Thursday, at which point they would be given to Israel’s political leadership for consideration.

The IDF in recent days has deployed additional ground troops — from the Paratroopers Brigade, Golani Infantry Brigade and 7th Armored Brigade — to the Gaza border, sending with them tanks and armored personnel carriers, which could be seen being transported by trucks on highways throughout southern Israel.

On Thursday the army said it was canceling all weekend leave for combat soldiers as it prepared for the possibility of a ground operation. Zilberman said the military had called up 7,000 reservists. Roughly half of those were troops from air defense, artillery and medical units, and half serve in administrative and intelligence positions, Zilberman said.

In the evening, Defense Minister Benny Gantz gave the military approval to call up as many as 9,000 reservists if needed, his office said.

The reservists would come from combat units and command center operators, to serve in the Southern Command, Central Command, and Northern Command so that soldiers regularly stationed there could be sent on other missions, according to his office.

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